Big Cheese Suddenly a star at 36, Jerry Kelly remains true to his Wisconsin roots

January 20, 2003

"This is my element," Jerry Kelly says, looking around with an
air of contentment. That's the only clue we're going to give you
as we play Where in the World Is Jerry Kelly?

Hint: Kelly won the first two tournaments of his seven-year PGA
Tour career in 2002, making him eligible for last week's season
opener on Maui, Hawaii--the Mercedes Championships. Second hint:
Kelly is wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Third hint: The
cold-weather-loving Kelly would be wearing a T-shirt if he were
leading the Iditarod.

Your guess is ... Lemont, Ill.? Not bad. Kelly certainly seemed
to be in his element there last July when he shot a final-round
65 at Cog Hill Golf and Country Club and won the Western Open by
two shots over Davis Love III. But we already know Kelly likes
his weather brisk, and Lemont's was far from it. Ask him to
explain his come-from-behind victory in the hot, humid
conditions, and Kelly shrugs. "I'm so preoccupied being miserable
in the heat," he says, "that it takes my mind off golf."

Your next guess is ... Honolulu? Are you even trying? Granted, it
wasn't so much hot as pleasantly warm last January when Kelly won
the Sony Open in the gentle trade winds at Waialae Country Club.
But you can't say that Kelly was in his element there either,
because the Sony was a Tour event and, quite frankly, Kelly isn't
sure he fits in as a Tour player. He wonders why the locker rooms
are so lifeless. He is puzzled by certain golfers who walk by him
without so much as a nod of recognition.

"The locker rooms have gotten better, but you still have your
cliques," he says. "I try to infiltrate all the cliques and bug
them equally." To that end, Kelly sometimes playfully hip-checks
another player into a wall or gives a guy one of those grade
school socks on the arm. His wife, Carol, rolls her eyes.
"Jerry," she says, "you're 36 years old. You're an adult now.
Most people don't find that funny anymore." Jerry thinks his
inner child has something to teach the Tour's older souls. He
says, "I like to get inside someone's bubble."

So where in the world is Jerry Kelly? One last hint: Nick Price
calls him Rhino Hide.

Zimbabwe? Get real. Price calls him Rhino Hide because Kelly
plays in short sleeves when other golfers are wearing roll-necks
and cashmeres. "Last year at the Tour Championship it was 48
degrees and windy," Price recalls, "and Jerry comes out with bare
arms. I said, 'What are you doing?' He says, 'I don't feel the
cold.'" Anyway, Africa is a riot of pollen, mildew and lion
dander, any one of which can make Kelly miserable. Says Carol, "I
call him Bubble Boy because he's allergic to everything--trees,
grass, dust, mold, life in general."

That's it. No more clues. Jerry Kelly is in ... a deserted,
partly darkened hockey rink at the Capital Ice Arena in Madison,
Wis. "This is my element," he says, taking in the scuffed-up ice,
the goals and the electric scoreboard. "I always wanted to play
hockey, and I had the right mentality for it. I was feisty. I was
fast and smart."

In fact, Kelly was an all-city center when he played for Madison
East High, but he says he was never NHL material, unlike some of
the boys he played with. He chose the University of Hartford
because it had a hockey program, but didn't leave when the school
dropped the sport before he got to play. "Everybody has kind of
gotten it wrong," he says. "I wasn't nearly as good at hockey as
I was at golf. I knew I was going to be a golfer when I was 12
years old."

So what in the world is Jerry Kelly doing in Madison in December?
Why in the world did he and his wife impulsively sell their house
in Florida two years ago, put most of their worldly goods in
storage and move back to Wisconsin with their toddler son,
Cooper? Why did Kelly buy his parents' house in leafy Maple
Bluff--the home that he grew up in--and why did he knock that
house down and start work on a sprawling mansion that, for half
the year, will sit in a sea of snow like a wine bottle in an ice
bucket?

Kelly answers these questions by driving past the park where he
played hockey as a kid ("The squirrels are getting fat--it's
going to be cold," he says), by showing a visitor the 440-yard
12th hole at Maple Bluff Country Club ("Those pine trees taught
me a lot over the years") and by driving past the campus of
Edgewood High, Carol's alma mater ("She went to the private
Catholic school. She was coddled").

"You can tell how much I love this place," Kelly says, craning
his neck to see the dome of the state capitol across Lake
Mendota. "Madison has everything I want."

Actually, Madison has most of what Kelly wants--lots of family,
plenty of friends and a safe, fun environment for four-year-old
Cooper. But those who have looked into Jerry's powder-blue eyes
during a tournament have seen some wants that can't be satisfied
by a Midwestern chamber of commerce. "I used to call him
Geronimo," says Chris Smith, who has been Kelly's close friend
since 1995, when they both played the Nike tour. "He has that
free-for-all, go-for-broke mentality." Smith, a former high
school quarterback, thinks he and Kelly stand out on Tour because
they played contact sports. "He knows when I want to throw a
block on somebody, and I know when he wants to check somebody
into the boards. You can see it on our faces."

Reading Kelly's has never been difficult. He grins a lot outside
the ropes, and he bestows more eye contact than most fans are
used to. ("Where in Canada are you from?" he asked an autograph
seeker last week at the Mercedes. The man, who had only spoken a
few words, looked startled: "You can tell?") Sometimes, though,
golf wipes the smile off Kelly's face. In '95, the year he won
twice on the Nike tour, he got so mad after a shot that he buried
an iron up to the hosel in the turf. Carol, who was doubling as
his caddie that year, left the club in the ground. On the next
tee she said, "Are you going to go back for your club?" Jerry,
recognizing a will as strong as his own, retrieved the iron.

"He never did it again," Carol says, adding, "I don't have a lot
of sympathy for him when he hangs his head and beats himself up.
It doesn't get him anywhere." Jerry concedes that he has never
quite gotten that golf is not a game of perfect. He says, "I
still need a good talking-to from time to time. I need for Carol
to say, 'You're a good player, you'll get through this. Stop
being a baby.'"

Kelly's occasional spells of negativity haven't kept him from
achieving his goals. Since 1997, his second year on the PGA Tour,
he has improved his standing every season, advancing from 103rd
to sixth on the money list. Last year he banked almost $3 million
despite ranking 158th in driving distance. He delivered this
career-best year under the gun, so to speak, having committed a
large portion of his wealth to the construction of the house in
Maple Bluff. "I like that kind of pressure," he says. "Give me a
reason to play, and I'll play."

How in the world does he do it? Kelly credits swing coach Rick
Smith, who has helped him better coordinate his upper and lower
body and stay more "on top of the ball" through impact. ("I used
to have such a flat, flippy swing that I couldn't keep my timing
from the 1st hole to the last," he says.) Kelly claims, as well,
that he played better once he rejected everyone's
well-intentioned advice to relax and started going after it with
his heart racing and an adrenaline roar in his ears. Kelly might
have done even better over the last two years if he had followed
the example of the majority of Tour players and switched earlier
to a solid-core ball. Since changing in November, Kelly says he
has gained about 15 yards off the tee.

At the Mercedes, where the steep slopes of the Plantation course
tack on as much as 100 yards to some drives, it was hard to
assess Kelly's length, but it was easy to gauge his resolve.
Playing against a select field--35 other winners of 2002 Tour
events--Kelly opened with an eight-under 65 and finished on
Sunday at 20-under 272, 11 shots behind winner Ernie Els in a tie
for 10th. "I'm trying to get where Tiger is," he said, raising
the bar about five feet beyond the reach of an extension ladder.
Asked what his immediate goals were, Kelly answered, "Win a major
and be Number 1."

That would be cool. And speaking of cool, Jerry, Carol and Cooper
were eager to get back to frigid Madison to move into their new
house. "People think we're crazy to move back," Carol said last
week, watching a typically gorgeous Maui sunset. "I wonder
sometimes, too, in the winter. But it was very important to
Jerry. To be completely happy, he needed to go back."

Kelly, sitting in the vacant rink, sees it clearly. "Madison is
not a small town," he says, "but it feels small. Most of the
people I went to high school with are still here." In Madison,
Kelly can needle the guys who used to give him a hard time for
playing that wimpy sport, golf. In Madison he can show Cooper
where he and his brother, Scott, used to crawl out on the roof of
the old house to talk about life and to look across the lake at
the capitol dome. In Madison, Jerry can revel in little triumphs,
the stuff he dreamed about as a kid. "I couldn't believe it when
Upper Deck paid me to do a bubble-gum card," he says. "I wanted
that more than anything. You've made it when you've got your own
bubble-gum card."

Would he have been happier as a hockey star? Kelly shrugs and
stares out at the ice, trying to picture himself with nine fewer
teeth and a body held together with surgical pins and Ace
bandages. Golf has taken him around the world and planted his
smiling mug on ESPN. Golf has given him a huge house with a home
theater, a workout room, a lake view and a flat-screen plasma TV
in almost every room. Those friends of his who made it to the
NHL? "They want to be me now," he says, "because their careers
are over and mine is just starting to take off."

Where in the world is Jerry Kelly? Right where he's always wanted
to be.

Read John Garrity's Mats Only column on golfonline.com

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID BERGMAN LATE BLOOMER A pair of 2002 wins, his first ones on Tour, were Kelly's ticket to his first Mercedes, at which he tied for 10th. COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG FAMILY PLOT Carol, Cooper and Jerry's dream house in Madison is built on land where Jerry lived as a child. COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG RHINO HIDE An all-city hockey center in high school, Kelly plays golf in short sleeves while others are bundled up. COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH SHORT STORY Though not long by Tour standards, Kelly finished the 2002 season sixth in scrambling and earnings.

Says Kelly, "I need for Carol to say, 'You're a good player,
you'll get through this. Stop being a baby.'"

"I used to call him Geronimo," says Chris Smith. "He has that
free-for-all, go-for-broke mentality."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)